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Cape May County, New Jersey Hosts Fifth NACo County Prosperity Summit

Freeholder Kris Gabor (left) and Freeholder Will Morey (right) discuss options for new opportunities in Cape May County’s aquaculture sector.

The fifth and final 2015 NACo County Prosperity Summit took place on Thursday, June 4 in Cape May County – the southernmost county in New Jersey with a population nearing 100,000.  With over 30 miles of picturesque beaches, Cape May County generates annual tourism revenues nearing $5.5 billion – making it the county’s single largest industry.  However, Cape May County leaders are focusing on expanding and diversifying other sectors of their economy to stay resilient to changing economic and natural conditions and position the county to attract and grow new businesses, retain skilled workers and families and promote a high quality of life throughout the region. 

The Cape May County Prosperity Summit centered on cultivating new sustainable economic development approaches.  The daylong event convened a diverse group of 40 county leaders – including Cape May County freeholders (the term for county elected officials in New Jersey) and staff, as well as township and city mayors and staff, local community colleges, local businesses (including restaurant, winery and brewery operators), banks, the U.S. Coast Guard, Rutgers University and the Cape May County School District.  When asked to comment on their interest in attending the summit, many participants acknowledged a need for more year-round job opportunities and retaining and attracting young people to stay, live and work in the area.  Summit attendees demonstrated abundant energy around exploring and expanding emerging industries in their economy – including viticulture, craft beer, aquaculture and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

Selected through a competitive application process, Cape May County stood out in the application pool due to its interest in pursuing a new economic development framework that sustains long-term jobs while also staying resilient to future economic and natural shocks.  Instead of relying only on the area’s vibrant tourism industry, county leaders are stretching themselves to imagine additional economic prospects that present year-round opportunities and take advantage of Cape May’s numerous natural and cultural assets.

The Cape May County Prosperity Summit was facilitated and led by Barbara Wyckoff, CEO of Dynamica Consulting.  Ms. Wyckoff introduced summit attendees to the WealthWorks framework and walked them through a number of visioning and mapping exercises to connect Cape May County’s forms of capital with market demand.  At one point, Ms. Wyckoff urged participants to identify the actions and projects that will cause “the biggest cascade of impact that is rooted in local ownership and influence,” emphasizing that Cape May County boasts various assets they can leverage and grow. 

Business owners, operators and policymakers representing viticulture and craft breweries brainstorm a value chain map. 

To add local context and describe a regional application of the framework, Leslie Schaller at The Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet), also joined the event.  Ms. Schaller shared her experience leading multiple training and technical assistance programs that support regional brand initiatives, targeted sector training and financial management support.  She highlighted the opportunities for Cape May County to “take that jewel in your crown – the tourism industry – and bundle it with your other incredible assets, strengths and sectors to build a more sustainable economy.”  Schaller also urged participants to explore the question, ‘What’s holding back expansion of these industries?’ to not only understand the existing barriers but also potentially tap into a new network of supporters that are critical to expansion.  

As the day ended, summit attendees charted a path forward beyond the day-long summit.   To continue the success and momentum of the day, Cape May County Planning Director Leslie Gimeno stated, “We’d like to continue working with all summit attendees and now have a better idea of our assets and barriers.  The leadership will work to identify someone from each sector to be a value chain leader to ensure that we move the process forward.  Given our great culture of collaboration, we need to work together to expand these industries.” The group also identified a need for utilizing local and social media to spread the word about the progress and challenges brainstormed throughout the day.  Additionally, a handful of summit attendees took ownership of preparing new sector solutions developed during the summit to present to state senate and assembly offices, demonstrating the importance of state-level engagement to support Cape May County’s promising future.  

The Cape May County Prosperity Summit harnessed the power of convening to support the long-standing culture of cross-sector collaboration and cooperation among county, regional and state leaders interested in strengthening and diversifying the local and regional economy.  Cape May County Freeholder Will Morey stated, “What I took away from this summit is the number of relationships that exist in the county.  I really feel we can now have better conversations when it comes to our industries, as well as social services and how deepening economic development will support those needs and business goals.  We need to look at all of the collateral benefits – within the community and outside the community – to appeal to various partners’ needs.”

Interested in learning more about County Prosperity Summits and WealthWorks?  Plan to attend NACo’s Annual Conference this summer in Mecklenburg County, N.C., which will feature a County Prosperity Forum on Sunday, July 12th from 9am-12pm EDT.  To register for the conference, visit naco.org/annual.  For more information about the County Prosperity Summits Program, visit naco.org/prosperity and visit the new NACo County Prosperity Summits Digital Journal to explore more stories, sector information, images and maps from each of the five summits.  Questions?  Contact Jen Horton at jhorton@naco.org.